Word on the Wire

Month: January, 2014

Sound The Retreat

Last weekend I watched ‘Thirteen Assassins,’ ‘Inglourious Basterds’ and ‘The Raid’.  All three films came with an 18 rating and it was easy to see why.  Some of the violence was toe-curling and had me reaching for the nearest cushion to blot out the view.  By the time I finished, my mind was swirling with Samurai, nasty Nazis and Jakarta’s most crazy panga-wielding gangsters.  It’s amazing how the vilest characters stick in the brain. 

     Monday, it was back to my clinical psychologist, Kim Slade, the main protagonist featured in my forthcoming novel ‘Beautiful Losers’; Tuesday and Wednesday, I concentrated on detectives from someone else’s, as yet, unpublished work.  Add this to a load of virtual friends and followers and, mentally speaking, you have the ingredients for the perfect psycho storm. 

     Fortunately for me on Thursday, I beat a retreat and took off solo for a twenty-four hour pre-scheduled trip to see family and friends.  It was more than ‘touching base’.  It was a chance for me to hear and listen to news, talk about stuff that matters and to focus on others, rather than on virtual others, and it put me in mind of a conversation I had with a writer some years ago before my novels were published.

     Generous with her time and advice, she also confessed that she’d far rather spend time with the characters in her stories than members of her family.   To be fair, the writer in question wrote family sagas so, perhaps, there wasn’t that much of a disconnection.  Had she penned dark tales of serial killers, drug lords and rapists, would she have been so keen, I wondered?

     The fact is, that if you’re in the writing game, it’s easy to get caught up with all those fictional folk and let real life pass you by.  New writers are often told to ‘get inside the skin of’ characters in order to make them as vivid and three-dimensional as possible.  It’s good advice and, therefore, no surprise, that people on the page can often seem more real than those with whom we live.  So where’s the problem?

     The nature of spending oceans of time alone with good guys and villains can have a strange, detaching effect and it doesn’t stop when the shed or study door is closed, the computer switched off, or the pen parked.  Even asleep, the brain continues to process that last scene, who did what to whom and why they did it, so that when you wake – my optimum time appears to be around 3.00 a.m. when I’m writing a novel – it’s as if you never said goodbye.  I’ve lost count of the times my nearest and dearest have told me, individually and collectively, that ‘you’re not really here, are you?’  Rumbled, I used to respond with a rough grunt of denial.  Next, I progressed to a smile of apology.  (After all, it’s no fun being with someone who has their mind on other, seemingly more interesting and alluring, pursuits.)  Nowadays, I like to believe I’ve struck a healthy balance, but it’s taken me a long time, years actually, to achieve it.   So what changed?

     Age probably has something to do with it and the realisation that, as loved as they are, fictional characters are no substitute for flesh and blood, friends and, even, foes.   Sometimes, a writer needs to beat a hasty retreat. 




Stand Up for ‘Stand Up’.

One of the many attractions of being a professional writer is the solitary nature of the job.  There you are on your patch, coffee, tea, whatever floats your boat on hand, and just your story for company.  Friends drop by in the form of books – I have a lot of bookcases in my writing place  – to impart the latest information on guns, forensic techniques, security issues and a whole host of other bits and pieces, but that’s it.  This is my domain, and my story and its characters belong to my empire.  There is no greater pleasure, from an artistic point of view, than a day of uninterrupted writing when thoughts become words and words become chapters and, finally, many days, weeks and months later, a fully formed novel is born.  This is the writer’s life.  Wonderful, isn’t it? 

Apart from the ‘show biz’ element, which nobody remembered to warn you of when you first picked up a pen, or tapped out your first novel. 

Make no mistake, a writer, unless very famous, is expected to talk the talk.  This comes in various guises: interviews on radio and television programmes, participation at literary events, usually by taking part in panels in front of the public, talks to anyone prepared to listen.  For the solitary writer, it can come as a bit of shock.  If you’ve got a great voice, have no fear of public speaking, or were lucky enough to have studied drama at school (I did) then it doesn’t pose so much of a problem.  If you have none of the requisite skills, it can be a nightmare. 

The very first time I did a radio interview I seriously considered running out of the radio station three minutes before I was about to go on air and never come back.  Instead, I went to the loo and threw up, then did my thing.  Once my pulse rate settled and I stopped sweating, I actually discovered that I enjoyed it – afterwards. 

Don’t get me wrong; all of the above are magnificent ways in which to get a writer ‘out there’.  It creates the opportunity to let the reading public know about your novel, what you’re about and promote your work.  So grow up, one might say, and enjoy your brief moment of fame.  And not all writers dread the publicity machine.  There are plenty who love, even relish, this aspect of the job.  They’ll say that it’s the perfect antidote to ‘cabin fever’ and a way to enjoy that special connection to readers.   

So what’s a less confident writer to do?  Take a proverbial leaf out of the stand-up comedian’s book.  It takes the equivalent of balls of steel (female comics included) to go on stage, night after night, in front of thousands of people (some tanked up on booze) whose only desire is to have their funny bones given a full work out.  Am I in awe?  You bet.  It’s no wonder that stand-up is the new rock and roll.   

To explain, I’m genuinely knocked out by the sheer ingenuity, versatility, observational skills and intellect of most comedians. Sticking my neck out, I bet most have an IQ high enough to qualify them for joining MENSA.  One thing that strikes me about the many comedians I’ve watched both live and on DVD, over and above an ability to make me laugh out loud, is that they don’t take themselves too seriously.  It may be a fake front designed to win over an audience, but it works.  Even those with a political bent, keen to mock the establishment – a form of comedy not so much in vogue currently – usually finish their act with a wry smile of self-deprecation because they know, at heart, nobody likes a show-off, yet it’s an irony that, as art forms go, stand-up comedians are the ultimate show-offs.  How else could he or she front it out to an audience of thousands?  So, I guess, my best advice to the writer new to the publicity side of the job is to embrace your inner show-off while not taking yourself too seriously.  And just remember that when a comic walks off that stage and disappears to his dressing room, the equivalent of the writer’s study, he walks alone.




So What Do You Really Really Want?

This week I tweeted a question.  It went something like this:  Does the forthcoming film ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ herald the return and rise in popularity of the financial thriller?  I’m a duffer with numbers and financial thrillers aren’t really my thing, but recently I read an unpublished first novel that had huge potential.  High concept, high octane, it made quite an impression.  So where was the hitch?  The main protagonist was a slick city trader.

Bankers, for reasons that I don’t need to go into here, are not popular people.  Mention the word ‘city trader’ to most and eyes roll and abuse pours forth.  It took me twenty minutes to check out the word on the wire with my own agent with regard to whether financial thrillers were ‘in’.  The resounding response was ‘dead in the water’.  A couple of writer friends with their ears close to the literary ground confirmed the same.  Like a reluctant messenger of doom, I passed on my grim findings and then, a couple of months later, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ wins a Golden Globe and is nominated as a front-runner for an Oscar.

To take another example, I’ve lost count of the times editors in publishing houses have said:  ‘The problem is the main protagonist – too morally ambiguous’.  Yet look at Walter White in ‘Breaking Bad’.  You don’t get more morally ambiguous than a crystal meth manufacturer and yet do we follow him every step of his tortuous way?  You bet!

This got me thinking.  Is there a disconnect between what the public desire in film and what readers desire in books?  Is our taste for visual art and storytelling different to what we sign up for when we read a novel?  Or are publishers playing catch-up with the film industry?

In all art forms there is an element of subjectivity.  What rocks one editor will turn off another – and that’s fine and expected.  Fashions in books, as fashion in general, ebb and flow.  Historical fiction will be in one minute and out the next.  Romantic fiction is a stalwart and the taste for crime fiction has never been more in demand.  Crime dramas with detectives, often based on novels, are all over the small screen, which indicates that there is no disconnect whatsoever between books and television.

I’ve often been told that publishers want something original, put another way  ‘They don’t know what they want, but they know what they want when they get it.’  Whatever the genre, if a novel strikes a chord with the reading public, publishers, with their eyes on the balance sheets don’t just want more of the same, they want shedloads of it.

Years ago, long before I was published, I was warned by an assistant to an editor at a mainstream publishing house not to send in any work that contained boats.  The editor had a particular dislike of all things nautical.  It wasn’t a problem for me because I’m not that keen on boats either but pity the poor writer who unwittingly transgressed!  Is there an element of too much personal taste going on?

In my day job as an editorial consultant, specialising in crime fiction and thrillers, for Writers’ Workshop, I’m often asked about the marketability or otherwise of a novel.  It’s relatively easy for me to see if a first or even a third draft requires more work.  What isn’t so easy to answer:  does the story contain the X factor, that elusive quality that makes it irresistible to agents, publishers and the reading public.  This brings me neatly back to where this blog started!

If I had a crystal ball  to unlock the formula for a cracking good read; if I could forecast whether a certain story was destined to be the next great thing, I’d be worth a fortune.  As to whether films lead the way and shine a light or simply reflect what a viewer (and reader) really really wants, it would take a braver woman than me to say what that is.  If there is a sudden spurt in financial thrillers, or if the next best seller is a story about a narcotic manufacturer, perhaps it might answer my question.

In Praise of Box Sets

I have a secret.  I’m a box set junkie.  

‘The Wire’ first got me hooked.  I came to it as a late-comer, long after it had aired.  I’m a little perverse in that way:  always standing back, waiting for the buzz to die down before checking things out.  I do it with books, too.  Anyway, one series soon turned into the next and the next after that until I’d roared through every scene, got to know every character, and stayed with them right through to the thrilling conclusion.   By the time I finished I felt as if I was on familiar terms with McNulty, Omar and Stringer Bell.  When it ended I experienced that sudden pang of loss, like I’d said goodbye to an old friend who I knew I’d never see again.  I felt flat and a bit depressed.  

But an antidote was at hand.  

In no particular order, I gobbled up ‘Mad Men’, ‘Justified’, Deadwood’, ‘The Killing’, ‘The Borgias’ and more recently, ‘Breaking Bad,’ ‘Spiral’ and ‘Broadchurch’.  So what’s the lure?

True, it’s pleasant to curl up on one’s own sofa without being sprayed by popcorn or having the back of your seat kicked.  If you fancy a drink or need the loo, you can pause and do what you have to do and come back without missing a single scene.  If I want to pig out by watching three episodes back to back, there are no commercials to disturb my pleasure, but the real attraction lies in the quality of all of the above (and those I’ve failed to mention.)

Box sets are the result of first-rate TV dramas with production values so high, they make your heart-rate zing.  Make no mistake, TV drama is where it’s at right now.  With a series that takes place over many weeks, characters can be developed in a way that rarely happens over the length of a two hour film (or ninety minutes, which seems to be the norm).  And strong characterisation equals damn fine storytelling.  It must be joy for actors to get a role into which they can actually sink their teeth, the result for viewers, some truly memorable performances.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dissing films, of which I’m a massive fan, but I’ve lately come to think that a movie is more of a sprint and TV Drama is a marathon.  To explain with one tiny example, in film, once the bad guy has been caught, the murderer nailed, there is usually a ‘clear-up’ scene where the main protagonist licks his wounds, gives him or herself a pat on the back and justice is seen to be done (or not, as happens occasionally).  TV Dramas, however, afford the writer more depth and emotional truth.  

Take Broadchurch’: once the killer has been revealed , a series of scenes, in which the aftermath, heartbreak and fallout from the discovery, are portrayed in exquisite detail.  It resonates because it’s real.  It’s how it is in real life.  Where else in a Hollywood all budget movie would you see this?         

As I write, I’m waiting for the delivery of my next series, the identity my secret to keep.  The prospect of my postman delivering another slab of sheer entertainment through my letter-box is enough to put a broad smile on my face.  Not a bad way to start a day. 

Spies and Stuff

One of the great highlights of the Christmas period is that I had time to read ‘A Delicate Truth’ by John le Carre.  It’s compelling, chilling and gives the strong feeling that le Carre tells it how it really is.  By ‘it’ I mean the silent, secret world of government where dirty deals are done to protect so-called national interests while mangling the lives of others.  If spy fiction floats your boat, this novel comes highly recommended.  Unsurprisingly, I received a couple of other spy-type books in my Christmas stocking so watch out for reviews of Alan Judd’s ‘Uncommon Enemy’ and Robert Harris’s ‘An Officer and A Spy’.  

I promised in my last blog not to drone on about myself.  However even I was surprised (and delighted) to find myself on BBC Radio Gloucester not once but twice over the Christmas period (30th and 31st December).  Cheltenham Literary Festival seems like a lifetime ago now and the piece was recorded moments before I went on stage with Russell James and Caro Peacock.  Hearing the interview a couple of months later provided a nice finish to an eventful 2013.  

As for 2014, ideas for a new novel ‘fermented’ during the holiday and I took the opportunity to make the most of a dry day today to carry out a location check on foot.  Yes, you guessed, it’s based in Cheltenham and I’ve got various characters and scenes dotted around town.  Before I crack on, ‘real’ work beckons…

To writers and readers alike, wishing you a great new year!